A Conversation With Kevin Morby

Kevin Morby’s seventh LP, This Is A Photograph (Dead Oceans), tells a story about the often-tragic side of the American Dream. It’s an album of nuance, bookended by field recordings he did in Memphis. MAGNET spoke with Morby about the time he spent “living” inside his new record, as well as the themes of This Is A Photograph, the influence of he late Jeff Buckley and recording in upstate New York with his pal Sam Cohen.

This Is A Photograph feels like the final snapshot of an era in human history. Did that inform your trip to Memphis? Was the purpose of the trip to reconnect with a world that was left behind?
Yeah. I like that interpretation of it. Thinking about this record and how it’s placed in my catalog, I kind of think that all my other albums are very rooted in one time and place. I have a record about L.A. and my experience there, I have a few different records that are about different facets of New York, and I have my record that’s about the Midwest and moving back to Kansas. This one, while it was done in Memphis and I think that’s the city you could point to, it also felt like it was kind of “zoomed out.” I wanted to make a record that could be applied to all of America. 

You know, going to Memphis to work on this album and really dig into it there, I’ve never had as much time to sort of “live” inside of the writing of a record. That felt really special, despite the circumstances of it being during the pandemic, which was what gave me the time and space to work on something like this. It was nice to dig in, in that way. Also, Memphis is this very fearless and resilient city, and there’s so much of the past that’s still there. You know, the Lorraine Motel is still right in the middle of downtown. I think, because so much tragedy has taken place there, that there’s this bravery to Memphis that I really love and found really comforting during a scary time. Also, revisiting those stories, as tragic as they are, knowing that there’s this new terrible thing that’s going on (COVID), it was comforting to think of those times. I was trying to get to the source of something very American that seemed like it had come and gone, but was also still very present. 

In terms of the field recordings, I was trying to capture a time and place that would mean something to me. You know, I found the exact location where Jeff Buckley walked in the water on the night that he drowned. That’s the water sample that you hear. I know that I could have gotten that water sample in my bathtub, but it was important for me to go to the source of all these things and live inside the songs in a way. 

Weirdly, Jeff Buckley was the source of me chasing down these samples. There’s the river, but also I had read that he had tried to get a job at the Memphis Zoo shortly before dying, which seemed strange for someone of his stature. So, I went to the Memphis Zoo one day, and again, it was during peak virus. Zoos are depressing, inherently, but especially with the virus and everything else happening. There’d be something like this sad bird making a crazy sound. I don’t know. In upstate New York, when I was there working with Sam on the song “It’s Over,” there was a bird outside literally singing along to the song. In key! We ended up just recording the bird. It was like the bird was jamming with us. It was amazing. It was a tufted titmouse. It’s credited on the record.

When did sessions for This Is A Photograph actually start? 
I would say January 2020 is when the first seed was planted. I didn’t write anything then, but this whole thing with my dad happened when he collapsed at a family dinner that we were having. He ended up being fine, luckily. After he was released from the hospital, we went through all these old family photographs. I didn’t write “This Is A Photograph” right after that, but had that not happened, I wouldn’t have written “This Is A Photograph” a couple months later. I did write that a couple months later, and that was the first song where I was like, “OK, I think this is my next record.” That would have been March or April 2020. When I was writing in Memphis, it was 2020. I actually went to Sam’s before his studio got built, and we did some recording in his basement. Some of that made it on the record. The bulk of it was 2021. 

2020-2021 were definitely years where you had the opportunity as an artist to only focus on one thing. 
Yeah. I did one tour (in 2021). I did one-offs here and there. I did a string of four or five shows, but all after the record was already done. So yeah, it was really just the record. Especially the writing of it. I’ve never done that. It’s usually like, “All right, I’m going on tour tomorrow, so this has to get done now. So, it’s done!” This Is A Photograph has that quality of, “I could say that song is done or I could go to Memphis and spend a couple weeks there and see if that influences me changing some of these lyrics.” It was a really cool process. 

At what point do you decide to call Sam? 
My last record, (2020’s) Sundowner, I recorded at Sonic Ranch (in Texas) with my friend Brad Cook. It was just the two of us. It was meant to be a quiet statement. The songs came quickly, the recording came even quicker. I knew that the next thing I wanted to do to follow that up was something bigger and conceptual with Sam. I had already been talking with Sam about This Is A Photograph. Memphis had been in my mind because I had gone on a couple of trips there, and I played this show there that I liked a lot (at Crosstown Arts) in 2019. It was on my mind to go to Memphis and record. I kind of had all these loose ideas for that. Once I wrote “This Is A Photograph” and some other songs started to follow it, it became extra clear that this was something that I wanted to make as big as possible both sonically and thematically. There’s just no one else that I would trust other than Sam. 

Can you elaborate more on that process? 
Well, I demoed it with me and an acoustic guitar. I was listening to a lot of Lucinda Williams and Tom Petty at the time. That camp of songwriters. I showed it to Sam. This was in that session in November 2020, in Sam’s basement. He had a little rig while his studio was being built. Sam and I and our friend Nick (Kinsey, drums) recorded a version like that. We were even talking about getting Lucinda Williams to take a verse on it. It felt cool, but then I remember taking that demo home and thinking about it. It felt too long and not enough was happening. Then, when Sam and I went back into the studio after his studio had properly been built in the spring of 2021, we recorded it like that again with our friend Josh Jaeger on drums. It still felt too long, maybe we needed to cut a verse. One of us had the idea to do it at a new tempo. Once we had that, it made the song go quicker, and it had a different feel. That wheelhouse of how Josh is playing that beat is a little bit more of a pop, Springsteen thing. To some people, there might not be that big of a divide between Petty and Springsteen, but there is. It’s this pop thing.

Would you say that the New York State sessions were bookended by live recordings in Memphis? 
Yeah, I like thinking of it in that way because I did record in Memphis (at the beginning). When I first went to Memphis, it was to write and I ended up collecting those field recordings. Then we went to Sam’s in upstate New York and did the bulk of the recording. We did probably three weeks up at his studio, which had just been built. Then we went to Memphis to do one last week. We could have probably done the stuff that we did in Memphis then at Sam’s. We could have kept cost down. We could have done some people remotely, but going back to Memphis felt like a thing that was important to the record. 

There was some very Memphis-centric stuff that was able to happen because we were there. We got some of the Stax Music Academy singers to come in. Jerry Phillips, Sam Phillips’ son, does a little spoken-word thing on the record. Jerry is kind of the point person at the Sam Phillips Recording Company, where we recorded. We had a drink with him one day, and I was like, “There’s a spoken-word part on the record that I speak, but would you mind doing it? I love your speaking voice so much.” So, Memphis was able to give the record a stamp of approval in this really cool way that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

We did most of the basic tracking at Sam’s. The real recording outside of the field recording started at Sam’s. We live tracked everything at Sam’s, and then we finalized half the record at the Memphis studio. The Memphis studio was really, sort of a thematic way to put good energy at the end of the record as well as bringing in all these people from that area rather than fly them out to New York. We had a fiddle player come from Nashville. We had Erin Rae from Nashville—she sang on the record. We had the Stax kids, who live in Memphis. We had Jerry Phillips. I did a few other overdubs in the Sam Phillips Recording Company room. 

I think everything else was done up at Sam’s. We live tracked everything. All those songs with Josh Jaeger—“It’s Over,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “A Random Act Of Kindness”—we also did with Jared Samuel, who’s on keys. There’s some stuff where I think it’s just Sam and I. On “Disappearing,” Sam’s on drums and I’m on guitar, and we build it up from there.  

This album, both lyrically and musically, seems to savor the insignificant moments. A song like “Bittersweet, TN” represents that. How do you paint that kind of soundscape?
When I think about other people listening to my music, I definitely try to put these ceilings in there, sonically, that you might pick up on whether you know it or not. For example, one of my favorite moments on the record is the last song, “Goodbye To Goodtimes.” We had this idea to make it sound like educational audio that was recorded dryly into some tape machine in the ‘80s. Like how to plant flowers in grade school, something like that. 

Sam has this great, big porch on the front of his studio. We had some friends over one day, and his kids were running around. Sam kept the mics on and kept them real hot, so they were picking up this fodder of everyone just enjoying their day. That’s what the record starts out with: a car, children playing and yelling out for their dad, a camera snapping. Then the song (“This Is A Photograph” starts, and then the record starts, and it’s about all of those things. I really like putting those things into music. It adds to the texture. A lot of the record is about those little mundane moments, so capturing those mundane moments was important to honoring the subject matter. 

Between the field recordings of the Mississippi River at the spot where Jeff Buckley drowned to a John Lennon reference, there seems to be a recurring theme of the fragility of life. Is that accurate?
Yeah. That’s something that’s always present in my music. It’s always been consistent, but in terms of this one, it’s certainly about the fragility of life, but it’s also about the fragility of artists. There’s this theme in this record about dreamers and being an American dreamer and what that means to chase down a dream—and the tragedy that often follows. Memphis is obviously a backdrop to a lot of those tragic dreams. I was thinking a lot about being in my 30s and having done this for a long time. I look at someone like Jeff Buckley, and you know, he died at 30. I’m about to be 34. These people who I grew up, looking up to as these adults, have now become these children in my mind. The fragility of being a dreamer. 

What production choices were made to further paint that picture of the fragility of being a dreamer?
That’s a great question. We added these bird samples. There was this bird at the Memphis Zoo. It felt like it was screaming or in pain. Putting some stuff like that on these songs is something I don’t think I would have normally done if I wasn’t trying to get some sentiment like that. Also, a thing that we ended up doing in “Disappearing” that I really love where, in the middle of the word “disappearing,” we cut the vocal so the vocal disappears. Maybe the best representation of it was on “A Coat Of Butterflies,” which is the song about Jeff Buckley. We really couldn’t get the vocal right. At first, I was kind of signing it in this way that was very direct and kind of loud. Like I was really telling someone something. And it just wasn’t sitting right. We kept trying a million different ways. But when I came down to this fragile whisper, that’s what ended up being on the record and making sense for a song like that. This sort of fragile voice.

How did you find the other musicians who play on This Is A Photograph?
There was still COVID, so there was a lot of logistics to work around—that fine line between availability and who we could hear on the song. I’ve got such a language with certain people that I play with live, and I wanted to represent that on this record. I kind of knew for songs like “This Is A Photograph” that I wanted Nick Kinsey in. He’s played live with me for many years, off and on. He’s an amazing drummer, and I knew I wanted him to be a part of it. Josh Jaeger’s played with Angel Olsen for a long time and he played some on the last Fleet Foxes record. His style’s a lot different than Nick’s. One’s not better than the other—they both just bring their amazing thing. Josh is someone who I wanted for the more “pop” songs. He’s on “It’s Over,” “Five Easy Pieces” and “A Random Act Of Kindness.” Then, there was a couple songs like “A Coat Of Butterflies” that we didn’t know what to do with. Sam’s good friends with Makaya McCraven, and he was so generous to lend his talent and play on it. He did it remotely. He’s such an amazing jazz drummer, and “A Coat Of Butterflies” was a perfect song to have him on. Similarly, Sam had heard of this jazz harpist Brandee Younger. We got her on the same song. A lot of it was sort of delicately picking what musicians we think would be great for it and shooting our shot.

Does it become hard to finish a record with the kind of freedom that you had during the writing and recording of This Is A Photograph?
Yeah. It’s funny, even as I was saying it, I was thinking back to when I was in Memphis for those three weeks when I asked myself, “What the hell am I doing?” I’m in Memphis, looking at Reddit threads to find out where Jeff Buckley entered the water. Like, “What am I doing with my life?” [Laughs] I liked it, but I’d never done something like that before. Kind of like what you were saying—there’s endless possibility because there’s no clock to work off of. But, in the end, I would stumble onto things and think, “That feels right. That one thing that always felt a little weird before feels right.” Yeah. There was a little bit of that, but nothing too overwhelming. I would say the pros of being weightless with the time outweighed the cons.

—Jacob Paul Nielsen